Op-ed | Do not cancel space station’s new culture of commercial cooperation

Space

Is NASA’s ISS price hike a conspiracy to kill entrepreneurial space?

I am not into conspiracies. Kennedy was shot by a lone gunman. The World Trade Center was taken down by terrorists. And yes, we really did go to the moon.

However, the recent move by NASA to essentially gut private sector activities on the International Space Station has me wondering. I am beginning to believe there may be some secret directive in the U.S. government to not only not allow, but to kill off the space frontier’s opening to anyone except governments and their well-established in-house contractors. The announcement of NASA’s plans to end discounted pricing is not just short sighted. It reeks of sabotage — be it intentional or not.

The wisdom shown by setting prices and eating some of the costs of transport and utilization of the ISS had been long-awaited by those who see opening space as the next great economic frontier and those working to create a beneficial partnership between government and the people. It was already producing results as a wave of innovative and possibly world-changing projects, companies, and private initiatives started to take off. From product research in materials, industrial products, and technologies to lifesaving biological research, U.S. commercial space seemed to have finally found at NASA a genuinely supportive friend — rather than a massively subsidized competitor. I also thought for a moment that Washington had at last begun to understand just how important this app development platform on the edge of the universe might turn out to be. Obviously, the projection on and appreciation for such wisdom on the part of those institutions was premature.

It is a long and well-established norm of government that the government will support the development of technologies, systems, and resources in the interest of the nation and its people. This is done through the application of a broad set of tools, including tax breaks, discounts, and subsidies. In most cases, these incentives are kept in place until the needed change or nascent industry is well established, and frankly, as is the case with such breaks and incentives for industries like oil and gas, they are often never removed.

Reporting on this disaster will, of course, focus not on the fantastic and wide variety of industrial and commercial research and product development projects it helped nurture but on the higher-profile celebrity and commercial brands that also benefited. So, rather than try and parse the many judgment calls needed by those who might want to let the government pick the winners and losers of who gets a break to go to space, let me use their cases to help demonstrate the utter stupidity of this move.

Let’s say, for example, that the government believes folks should drive electric cars. The government then creates beneficial legal regimes and provides subsidies to the fledgling electric car industry to help give it a kick-start to support this shift. Meanwhile, at some point word goes out that Tom Cruise has bought one of these subsidized electric cars and cosmetics company Estée Lauder has had one painted with their colors.

Does the government then cancel the subsidies for the electric car industry? Of course not. In fact, any sane and thinking government would promote and hail the acceptance and use of these machines by such influential opinion leaders. They would encourage any and all the other influencers they could find to take advantage of and become advocates for electric cars, perhaps even expanding their incentives to help grow the wave. Sure, Cruise can afford to buy a whole fleet of them, and Estée Lauder doesn’t need the help of the lower costs. Still, in part, it is the fact that the government has supported and endorsed, and by doing so, amplified the marketing of those trying to build electric cars that drew them to become customers in the first place. Meanwhile, of course, the subsidy allows a flood of new customers to participate in the electric car revolution and supports all the suppliers and developers of this new field of automotive engineering. In the end, everyone wins.

This example hopefully shows the insanity of what NASA is doing. Having wisely and finally begun to leverage the taxpayer’s investment in ISS in a way that would catalyze a whole host of new industries and activities in space, in the name of some sort of prurient nickel and dime anti-success oriented procedures, the agency has decided to screw the whole thing.

In the decades since Apollo there have been numerous cases when Congress and NASA have tried to appear as if they had the people’s interests at heart, even as they sabotaged or outright killed projects and plans those citizens developed. Be it former Joe Allen’s Industrial Space facility, murdered with fingerprints in the 1990s, my own project to commercialize the Russian Mir space station, wherein NASA, Congress, and the White House worked together with Vladimir Putin to destroy our plans, moving the goal posts and funding flows on various commercial lunar programs ostensibly aimed at small private companies, the list is endless, and over time begins to add up. 

In an ironic twist on my last point, one of the rationales given by this fiasco’s faceless foisters, is that there are and will be commercial providers who can offer these same services. In a sense, it is as if they are declaring victory on behalf of the visiting team by economically shutting them out of the playing field while they are still in training. I must say that I also have a creeping feeling there may well be some subterranean shenanigans going on here. I sense whiffs of favoritism, inside dealing, and a crude attempt to establish a fait accompli in terms of beginning to force the end of the ISS as a potential home for private sector activities and setting up designated successors.

“But Rick,” some will say, “aren’t you all about free enterprise in space? Shouldn’t we be transitioning to private space facilities and market-based commercial spaceflight?”

Of course we should. But to categorize this move under that heading is disingenuous at best. Again, I refer to my earlier point about catalyzing a new industry. It’s too soon to stop priming the pump. A little bit not earned right now will indeed mean billions if not more earned later. 

I urge anyone who cares about an open frontier in space to step up and oppose this ill-conceived and frankly stupid attack on intelligent planning. Finally, NASA had put in place something that worked, not just for the Tom Cruises, the billionaires, and non-space corporations, but for numerous sincere and someday important American space startups who, though low profile, were clearly benefiting from the low-cost incentives it gave them to consider taking on and developing ideas that might otherwise have never seen the light of sunrise in space.

As I sit here in Texas writing this, I can’t help but compare the actions of Congress and NASA to our state government’s decision to throw out all COVID-19 precautions three months before we get our people vaccinated. Be it exuberance, premature action, or cold political or business calculation, it may look good to some, but it will kill others. In this case, the victims may not be the people, but it will undoubtedly be their dreams.

I believe in our future out there on the space frontier. I believe a well-run space agency overseen by intelligent leaders in the White House and Congress can work with citizens to open that frontier quickly, efficiently, and to the benefit of all. I am surrounded by, and work with others just like myself, in the government and outside of it, who share the same belief. So yes, perhaps I am myself part of a conspiracy — a conspiracy of dreamers.


Rick Tumlinson cofounded the Space Frontier Foundation, Deep Space Industries, Orbital Outfitters and MirCorp, a company that leased Russia’s Mir space station in 2000.

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